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Ethical Concerns Raised In Gyrocopter Coverage

AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke

Ethical questions are being raised about the Tampa Bay Times' coverage of Don Hughes, the Ruskin man who flew a homemade gyrocopter onto the grounds of the Capitol.

The Times first reported on Hughes' flight close to the time he took to the air on Wednesday.

As his homemade gyrocopter came in for a landing on the Capitol lawn, two Times journalists, including reporter Ben Montgomery, were nearby to record it. They had known about his plans since last summer.

However, Times Managing Editor Jennifer Orsi denies knowing exactly when the flight would take place.

"My understanding is that Hughes told Ben Montgomery late last week that he was probably going to make his flight this week, that he didn't know what day it would be, that it was dependent on the weather,” Orsi said. “We didn't know whether we'd be wasting a trip or covering a story."

She said Montgomery and photographer James Borchuck drove up to D.C. the morning of the flight.

And while the Secret Service had previously investigated Hughes, they had no idea he would fly through protected airspace this week to land on the Capitol lawn.

The paper didn't call the Secret Service and Capitol Police until after the flight began.

That's a problem, said Norm Lewis, a University of Florida journalism professor.

He said Hughes could have been shot down, or used his gyrocopter to hurt others.

"My approach would have been to say 'Sorry, I cannot do a story in which someone is willing going to violate a law that's going to put you and others at harm. If you persist in this, I'm going to have to alert authorities,’” Lewis said.

Roy Peter Clark, Vice President of the Poynter Institute, which owns the newspaper, wrote in a column Thursday that the "Tampa Bay Times was wrong."

Thankfully, no one was physically hurt.  But everyone is wondering what might have happened.  Maybe he would have crashed to the ground, or into the Washington Monument, or into a crowd of tourists or schoolchildren?  Imagine the conversation we would be having now about the judgment of the Times if something terrible had happened, if an over-reaction from the government resulted in trying to shoot the copter from the sky.

Others are defending the Times handling of the story. Donna Leff, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, said it's a newspaper's job to report the news, not do the legwork of investigators.

"I don't see any dilemma whatsoever, because law enforcement was entirely aware of this person and if they failed to do their job or they failed to act or investigate in a timely way, it’s not the newspaper job to ride hard on them,” Leff said.

The Times is defending its decision not to notify authorities earlier, saying they responded appropriately after talks between reporters, editors and attorneys. 

Here's the Times' full written statement:

Last summer, postal worker Doug Hughes contacted Times reporter Ben Montgomery, who was not previously acquainted with him. He told Montgomery that he was planning an act of civil disobedience to bring attention to campaign finance reform and wanted someone to know his plans and motivations for flying letters to the U.S. Capitol in case something happened during his attempt. By this time, Hughes told us, he had already been interviewed twice by a Secret Service agent. Earlier this year, as Hughes continued to work toward his flight, we conducted interviews with him and took photographs and video of his gyrocopter. He told us that part of his plan was to be transparent about his intent – he intended to livestream the flight, intended to go live with a website when he took off explaining who he was and what his intentions were, and that he had an email blast set to go out to lots of media outlets and the authorities alerting them to his plans. In reporting on the story, we saw the business card of the Secret Service agent who Hughes said spoke to him, and confirmed with a co-worker of Hughes that both men were interviewed by the Secret Service at their place of work. Hughes told us last week that he planned to go to Washington this week and attempt his flight. We sent Montgomery and photographer James Borchuck to Washington to see if the flight would occur. This morning, they went to the Capitol to see whether Hughes would make his attempt. Shortly after noon today, when we saw Hughes take off via his livestream feed, we posted a story on tampabay.com that Montgomery had written about Hughes and his plan. We also saw Hughes’ website go live identifying himself and giving details of his plan. We reported extensively and publicly about our story and the flight on social media including Twitter and Facebook. At about 1 p.m. we called the Capitol Police and Secret Service to ask whether they were aware that a man was flying toward the Capitol in a gyrocopter and ask for comment. We posted their response on our website. At approximately 1:30, Hughes landed.

I took my first photography class when I was 11. My stepmom begged a local group to let me into the adults-only class, and armed with a 35 mm disposable camera, I started my journey toward multimedia journalism.
WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.